The sermon today and next week will be multi-voiced. We’ll be hearing from our new members. I’ve gently suggested they keep their sharing brief, so I’ll follow my own counsel.
Today’s scriptures speak of a faith that is deeply personal and radically communal.
Psalm 23 proclaims God as a shepherd. And not just any shepherd, but my shepherd. “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.” How many people have recited these lines through the millennia?
And who doesn’t need shepherded? Is there anyone out there who has it all figured out, knows exactly where they’re going and why? Does anyone always know the way to green pastures and still waters? Most of the time we’re stumbling in the dark, or, as the Psalmist says, in “the valley of the shadow of death.” It doesn’t say we avoid the valley or the darkness. It says we are accompanied through it, and that we need fear no evil.
There is a dimension of faith that is deeply personal, and there are paths we alone have to walk. Psalm 23 proclaims that when we do, we are accompanied by the great Shepherd, with goodness and mercy trailing close behind.
And there is a dimension of faith that is radically communal.
Acts chapter 2 gives a summary of life in the early church. “Awe came upon everyone,” Luke writes. “All who believed were together.” They “had all things in common.” “They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
Radical is perhaps an overused word. It means to get at the root of something. For the early Jesus movement, the root of faith included an economics of sharing, and a life oriented around community. We Mennonites are the heirs of the Radical Reformation in 16th century Europe. The Anabaptists set their sites on digging down to the root of faith, which rested in the life and teachings of Jesus.
In our highly individualized society, we hunger for community. Community gives us life, but it also asks of us. It asks that we participate in the Divine economy of sharing, that we give, and receive, and thus flourish together.
The Lord is our Shepherd. Jesus is at the root of our faith. We are welcomed into, formed within, and challenged by the community of faith that bears his name.
These shirts are going to be great for BREAD gatherings and the softball team and Pride parade and other events, but my favorite part is that I can get away with wearing a tshirt to church once a year. Very comfortable.
Tomorrow evening members of 40+ congregations across Franklin County will gather at the Celeste Center at the fairgrounds. We are white, black, and brown; Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Anabaptist, Unitarian Universalist. We’ll be joined by public officials with whom BREAD has been in conversation over the last months, and in some cases years. We’ll ask them to publicly commit to working with us to achieve some very specific solutions to problems we’ve been researching. Such as: creating a municipal ID card for immigrants and homeless folks to better access city services; preferential contracts from the city for companies that employ workers with criminal records who otherwise find it nearly impossible to get a job, and implementing restorative practices in Columbus City Schools to reduce suspensions and the school to prison pipeline that disproportionately affects people of color.
These are all big issues, each one, and I frequently wonder if BREAD bites off more than it can chew each year as we collectively decide on the next area in Franklin County we want to focus our energy and power. But BREAD has a track record for getting things done. We helped create a land bank that demolishes homes on abandoned properties. We worked with the Mental Health board to open a clubhouse that creates community and opportunities for folks living with mental illnesses. And members of this congregation were influential in helping create restorative justice circles as a way of diverting youth from the juvenile court system.
Since December I’ve been serving on the steering committee for the current campaign for restorative practices in the schools. BREAD asks a lot of us, and I’ve found it at times exhausting and exasperating, but overall, overall to be one of the best ways we have available to us, Columbus Mennonite Church, to be in solidarity with people across the county most affected by these problems, and to affect systemic change, as slow and incremental as it may be.
This big public gathering tomorrow is called the Nehemiah Action. It’s called the Nehemiah Action because it is modeled after the narrative of Nehemiah chapter five in the Hebrew Scriptures, a common text for Jews and Christians. So I’d like to walk through that passage together to see what it has to say and how this applies to the work of doing justice.
The passage is printed on the back of the bulletin insert, but first let me just set it up a bit with the historical context.
Painting with very broad strokes here: The Hebrews , the children of Israel, were formed as a people through enslavement under Pharaoh in Egypt. Moses emerges as a leader who has an encounter with the god Yahweh. Yahweh delivers the Hebrews out of Egypt, out of slavery, and through Moses gives the people the Torah, the law, the teaching. And the aim of the Torah is the creation of a people who live under the laws of justice and love of neighbor as this kind of alternative society to the ways of Pharaoh. The Israelites settle in the land of Canaan, they have judges and prophets and kings who lead them, they build a temple to Yahweh, but after about 400 years of kingship the holy city, Jerusalem, is conquered by the Babylonian empire under the rule of Mr. Nebuchadnezzar. The temple is destroyed, and the people are carried away in exile, with only the poor left behind to work the land. 50-60 years later Babylon is conquered by the Persians, under the rule of Cyrus the Great. The new Persian policy, by decree, is to encourage all these different ethnic groups under its rule to establish their own religious practices and local governance in their homelands. So over the following decades many of the Jews, as they’re starting to be called, return to the area around Jerusalem. They rebuild the temple, and they rebuild the protective wall around the city. Nehemiah comes on the scene as a governor of Judea about 100 years after Cyrus’ initial decree. We’re in the mid 400’s before Christ.
That’s the back drop of Nehemiah chapter 5. There’s a rebuilding process going on after a massively disruptive and traumatic period.
Nehemiah 5:1 states, “Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish kin.” Let’s pause here right away, and not get too hung up on the sexist language of “the people and their wives,” who apparently weren’t a part of “the people.” That’s reason for its own outcry, but that’s how it was…The prevailing event of this first verse is “a great outcry.” There is a crying out going on, a collective raising of the voice, signaling something aint right.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the outcry has an essential place in the redemptive work of God. Way back under Egyptian slavery, the very first action to counter Pharaoh is that the people groan and “cry out” under their oppression. It is this crying out that activates Yahweh, who “hears their groaning, and remembers the covenant with their ancestors, Abraham and Sara; Isaac and Rebekah; Jacob, and his collection of wives and reproductive partners. It is the cry, the outcry, of those experiencing hardship that initiates the movement, activates new possibility. The cry awakens the consciousness of those previously unaware of the pain, alerts even God to the injustice, and causes God and those tuned in to the spirit of God to remember who they are and what they are to be about.
There’s a specific cause of the outcry in this chapter. There’ve been some poor harvests, and people need to feed their families, and those with means are requiring those in need to put up their fields and houses and vineyards and children in pledge for grain. The only way to get food was to offer your dearest assets as collateral, your land, the labor of you and your children. And once those are gone, you’re stuck in debt slavery. And it is their own kin who are doing this. The people say in verse 5: “we are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves…we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others.” A key purpose of the Torah was to keep this kind of thing from happening. To not become like Pharaoh’s Egypt. But it’s happening. Aaiigghhh. We’re crying out.
Outcry can awaken the consciousness of those within earshot of the pain. It is the first signal that something is not right. It can help us to remember our covenant and commitments. It’s the first key moment of this story. The outcry.
A second key moment is this appeal from the people in the first part of verse five: “Now our flesh is the same as that of our kindred; our children are the same as their children.” This assertion of a shared humanity, a common value for life, is at the basis of morality. “Our children are the same as their children.” You can almost hear the chant “Black Lives Matter” as a direct descendant of this. Or, “Refugees welcome.” “Our children are the same as their children.” Theologically, we also say that we are all created in the image of God, or that we are all children of God. This moment is what makes the cry of the other a shared concern. If we have the same flesh, and our children have the same value and aspirations, we are tied up in a common reality, and your cry becomes a part of my story.
Believing this is a vulnerable way to live, and can become overwhelming without being grounded in the Source of Being and goodness and life which we call God.
There’s the outcry, and the appeal that this affects all of us.
Verse 6 is a pivotal part of the story. Nehemiah says, “I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these complaints.” This is the moment when the cry from the outside makes its way inside and lodges itself within the hearer. If you hear the outcry, really hear it, you might get angry. You might, like Nehemiah, get very angry.
I don’t know when it was in life that I was introduced to the idea that anger can be a constructive motivating energy, but it still goes against just about all of my peaceful Mennonite-ness. I don’t particularly like being angry, and I just generally feel like a better person when I’m not angry. I have even prided myself on being not angry. The not-angry white guy. Anger sometimes feels like a failure of will.
Hebrew is such a visceral language. The literal translation for anger is usually to have burning nostrils. They don’t say “she was angry.” They say, “her nostrils were burning.” Even God gets hot nostrils when God is angry. Anger is hot, fiery, felt in the breath.
Anger is a powerful force. It can be destructive. We included the Mark 3 reading today because it’s the only time in the gospels when it explicitly says that Jesus was angry. Jesus is in the synagogue on a Sabbath and he brings forward a man with a withered hand. And he asks everyone if it’s lawful to do good or to harm on the Sabbath. And everyone is silent because there were strict laws about what could and could not be done on the Sabbath. The only time in the gospels when it says that Jesus was angry is when people are offered an opportunity to do good, and they are silent. Mark says, “Jesus looked around at them with anger; he was grieved.” How many paintings have you seen of an angry Jesus? Not many. Jesus proceeds to invite this man to stretch out his hand, which is restored.” Jesus harnesses anger as an energy for healing.
Jesus gets angry. Nehemiah gets very angry. At BREAD house meetings in the fall we are asked the question, “What makes you angry?” How we answer this question helps determine the area of focus for the coming year. I’m trying to get better at getting angry in a Jesus kind of way.
What makes you angry?
Nehemiah does something with his anger. Something big, and, ultimately, healing. He does not hold his anger in, and does not try to deal with it as an individual. Verse 7 says he called a great assembly. This great assembly includes the people affected by the problem, the ones who gave the initial cry, and the people with power to change the problem — the officials and, “the nobles.”
Nehemiah has already lost his Mennonite cred by becoming very angry, but he goes a step further and speaks plainly in the face of conflict. How terrifyingly strange. He tells the leaders “The thing that you are doing is not good.” This is the point in the program where I start looking down at the floor, or remember I need to check my phone for something. But I’m learning there’s a difference between attacking someone’s personal character, which this is not, and calling on someone to uphold their public duty to serve all people, which this is. It’s a point where the tension that the people have been feeling in their lives is now made public, put out in the open. You can feel the tension.
Nehemiah gives specific suggestions for how to address the problem: Verse 11: “Restore to them, this very day, their fields , their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the interest on money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.” It’s a pretty direct and specific request, complete with a tight timeline. This very day!
The very first Nehemiah Action turns out to be successful. In front of that great assembly, accountable to the people they’ve been entrusted to lead, the officials agree to these requests. They listen, and change course. They are restored to their higher calling. Nehemiah goes one step further and ensures there will be proper follow up to see it all happens. The whole assembly ends with a collective Amen and expressions of praise.
And every Nehemiah Action since then has gone just as smooth and been just as successful.
We are hoping for as many of us as possible tomorrow evening to represent Columbus Mennonite, but whether you come or not, this story has something to say. Are we willing, are you willing, to listen for the cry, wherever it comes from? To nurture the kind of consciousness that acknowledges we are all one kindred and our children are of equal value. And as you experience anger at whatever it may be, to do the difficult and necessary soul work that enables that nostril burning anger to be an energy that leads toward healing, in the spirit of Jesus, and not destruction. To find a great assembly that takes you out of isolation. A group that sings and praises together no matter the outcome. To see this kind of solidarity as a continuation of your faith in the God who delivers slaves out of bondage, in the Christ who invites us out of our guarded silence. To join in spirit and in body with the great cloud of witnesses dead and alive who witness to the divine reign of justice and peace that is already being realized among us.
When death dances with you, what will it feel like? What does it feel like?
When Joseph of Arimathea danced with death it looked like… a meeting with Pilate – a rare conference with the political authority who held in his hand the power of life and death. Who had withdrawn his power to protect life, and handed yet another subject over to a tortured death. Who had been swayed by the fickle crowd. Whose soldiers had done their job, carried out their duty, ensuring the security of the state.
When Joseph of Arimathea danced with death it looked like asking for a body, a dead body, from the one with power to grant or withhold that body. With the wave of his hand, Pilate granted Joseph his request.
When Joseph of Arimathea danced with death it felt like new linen cloth, clean and slightly course, wrapped tight around the body. It smelled like myrrh and aloes. It felt like stone, cold and hard. A new tomb, hewn in the rock. He laid the body in the rock tomb. “Then,” Matthew writes, “he rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb, and went away.
When Abbie and I danced with death it sounded like… nothing. Our first two children were born the way we’d hoped and expected. The work of labor was followed by the yelp of life and a flurry of activity – doctor and nurses who had done this many times before, skilled at attending to a child in the first minutes after birth. As the father, who had not felt life slowly growing within me, one minute there was nothing, and then there was something, someone, very real, very real, and very alive.
But with our third child, we danced with death, something we had not expected. The work of labor was followed by a deafening silence as our daughter Belle was stillborn at 22 weeks. There was no flurry of activity afterwards because there was nothing to do. We held her and sat with her, talked and didn’t talk for long stretches of time. We received visitors who sat with us in silence, talking, and not talking, moving about and being still. Eventually, hours and hours later, it was time to go. Eventually, we walked out and drove away. Back home, where life was very much the same, and very much different.
The two Marys danced with death from a distance. They’d followed Jesus from Galilee and provided for him out of their own means. They had invested their resources, their money, their time in this man and his message about the kingdom of God. They’d invested their hopes in the way he moved among the people, the way he touched people with his words and his hands. People who hadn’t been touched for years. The way he lifted them up, women!, as partners in this work.
The two Marys were there with “many women,” Matthew says, as witnesses to death, watching from a distance. When Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” danced with death they strained their eyes to make it out. It was happening, over there. Jesus’ other companions had fled for their own safety. But Mary, and the other Mary, were there, with many women, watching.
They were distant, and then they came near. The Sabbath had ended. It was dawn, the first day of the week. They came together to see the tomb. They came near to see, when they danced with death.
What’s it like to be distant, and then to come near to death, to see. Like walking into the labyrinth, winding your way along the only path there is. Eventually you make your way into the center, surrounded on all sides by the path that got you there. And there you are.
When Jesus and death had their day to dance, Jesus was silent when commanded to speak. “Do you not hear the accusations they make against you?” Pilate demanded.
He was nonresistant when expected to fight back. “Put away your sword Peter. For all who live by the sword, die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).
For one who had demonstrated such power, he was remarkably powerless. “He saved others, why can’t he save himself?” Matthew 27:42
Matthew narrates Jesus’s last moments this way: “Then Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and gave up his spirit.” Jesus gave up…his spirit, his breath, that thing through which the body has life. He gave it up, let it go.
There’s a great mystery in that moment. When the miracle of birth meets its mirror image. Life is there, then it’s not.
As Matthew tells it, Jesus’ dance with death was a moment of rupture. “At that moment,” he writes, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.” Temple, earth, rocks. That which represents the most sacred, the most sure, the most solid thing we can imagine. Is torn, shaken, and split. The earth moves under our feet and we can only try to keep our balance. Or sometimes, not even try.
If you were to dance with resurrection, what would it look like?
When resurrection dances you, what will it feel like? What does it feel like?
For Matthew, there is not one cataclysmic rupture, but two. After the death of Jesus, the rock splitting earthquake, after Joseph of Arimathea’s careful attention to the body, after the women have looked on from a distance, they come near after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning. It was Mary Magdelene and the other Mary who came to see the tomb.
“And suddenly there was an earthquake.”
And again that which was most sure and solid is torn, shaken, and split. Only rather than life being shaken, this time it’s death.
When Mary and Mary dance with resurrection, it looks a stone being rolled away. It looks like flashes of lightning. It looks like guards becoming like dead men and a dead man becoming like… Life itself.
It feels like fear and great joy, and leaving the tomb because what you were looking for is not there. It looks like running out of the labyrinth without paying any attention to the lines. The way has opened up ahead of you in all directions.
It sounds like being out of breath from running and still running into the light of day. It sounds like encountering Life itself which says, “Greetings!” and, “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:9,10). It looks like running to tell your friends. Christ, and you, are on the loose.
About a month ago I was putting Ila to bed and she surprised me by asking “Where’s Belle?” I told her that Belle had died when she was born. We buried her ashes on grandpa and grandma’s farm and planted a tree there. We can go and see the tree, but we can’t see Belle. Ila wasn’t entirely satisfied with my answer. Neither was I.
I imagine one day, not too long from now, she’ll ask me an even more loaded question. “If Belle hadn’t died, would I have been born?” I’m not ready with an answer on that one yet. What I want to tell her, eventually, is that it might not be the right question to get stuck on. Whether the life you are living would have been entirely different, or would not have been at all, had death not intervened somewhere along the way. I’d like to tell her the same thing I tell myself. That we are surrounded by mysteries, and that one of the most wonderful mysteries of all is that we are alive right now, and that “now” keeps changing, even though it’s still now. That Christ is Risen, on the loose, and is not confined to any singular package of cells and organs. All to which Ila might respond: “Geeze Dad. It’s like you’re preaching a sermon.”
The March 9 issue of Christian Century magazine included an obituary for Richard Reinhold Niebuhr. He was the son of theologian H. Richard Niebuhr and himself a long time professor at Harvard Divinity School. It included a quote from him he had written in 1960. “The problem of preaching at Easter (is that) it is a relatively easy thing to muse on the story of the first Easter, for it is not Easter as such that is a scandal,” even to modern people. “The difficulty arises at the juncture in which the humanity of Christ and our own humanity are equated or not equated, at the juncture in which we either do or do not recognize ourselves in him and him in ourselves.”
To recognize ourselves in the one who was dead but is risen is an act of faith. To acknowledge that even though death is at work within us, so is life, which includes and transcends the power of death.
When resurrection dances you, what will it feel like? What does it feel like now?
Matthew includes in his gospel a brief anecdote not mentioned anywhere in the other accounts. It is as delightful as it is bizarre. It happens right after Jesus’ death. Right after the temple curtain is torn, the earth shakes, and the rocks are split. Right in the midst of the disruption.
Matthew writes: “(And) the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After (Jesus’) resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many” (Matthew 27:52).
Now imagine this scene. Many bodies of the saints have been risen to life. They are waiting, just waiting in those tombs that held them for so long. And after Jesus’ resurrection they start to come out, to dance their way into the holy city. To move their way through the streets, making unannounced appearances to unsuspecting people going about their daily lives. To appear to many. To dance their way into the marketplace. To dance their way into homes. To dance their way in and out of the paths that people tread every day.
Matthew makes very clear that resurrection is not confined to Jesus. The same Power that raised Jesus from the dead raises others from the dead.
Now, imagine that we are the others. Even though death is at work within us, so is life, which includes and transcends the power of death. Imagine resurrection dancing its way all around you and towards you.
If you were to randomly walk into our house anytime in the last four or five months, odds are pretty good you’d hear a certain Broadway musical playing at high volume. A little before Christmas, Hamilton took our household by storm. It’s still a favorite, although not quite as intense now as it was for a while. It’s been such a constant at our house it’s nearly miraculous this is the first time it’s come up in a sermon.
For the uninitiated, Hamilton is the true story of Alexander Hamilton, an orphan who became a Revolutionary War leader and the first US Treasury Secretary ; George Washington’s right hand man. And it’s all set to hip hop. As the opening number says, he was
“The ten dollar founding father without a father
got a lot farther
by working a lot harder
by being a lot smarter
by being a self starter.”
Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant to New York from the Caribbean and is played by the musical’s writer, Lin Manuel Miranda, himself the son of a Puerto Rican immigrant to New York. In the original cast, George Washington is black, and Thomas Jefferson has dreads. Along with being lyrically brilliant, thoroughly educational, and impossibly catchy, another reason for its popularity in our house is that the female leads are the Schuyler sisters, Angelica, Eliza, who marries Alexander, and Peggy. Three sisters. The Miller sisters quickly adopted and perfected their part.
Another feature is that the story is largely told through the eyes of Aaron Burr. Burr and Hamilton shared much in common, but had very different ways of pursuing their aspirations. In case we had forgotten or slept through high school US history, Burr tells us right away that he’s the fool who shot and killed Hamilton, in a dual. So one of the threads throughout the musical is seeing how these two friends and collaborators eventually have their falling out.
When asked about his inspirations for writing Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda included the 70’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. That musical tells the story of Jesus, largely from the perspective of Judas, who, in case you had forgotton or slept through Sunday school – every year – eventually betrays Jesus, aiding in his crucifixion. That musical takes a lot of liberty with the psychology of Judas and Jesus, but it’s a powerful method: to hear a familiar story from the perspective of the “villain,” and thus see it in a new way. As Aaron Burr sings, after he and Eliza are by Hamilton’s side as he dies from the gunshot wound: “Now I’m the villain in your history. I was too young and blind to see. I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.”
Today is Palm Sunday, and the lectionary gives two options for the gospel reading. There is the standard reading of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He parades into the city in street theater fashion, met by cheering crowds and a road covered with cloaks and palms. Greeted with shouts of joy: “Hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Less than a week later, he’ll be dead.
The other gospel reading, which we chose, features Judas. It’s four days after that dramatic entry into Jerusalem. Jesus is gathered for supper with twelve of his closest companions, Judas among them. As they eat, Jesus reveals that one of them will betray him. All the disciples deny it, but we, the reader, have already been told that Judas had met with the chief priests. He’d offered to betray Jesus, for a price. The reading ends unresolved, the tension thick in the air. Judas says, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” And Jesus replies, “You said it.”
Every story needs a villain, and here we have our man. The one so close to Jesus that they would dip their bread in the same bowl, becomes the betrayer, the Judas, the villain.
If you need a villain, someone to blame for the death of Jesus, Judas is definitely in the running.
But let’s consider the possibility that the gospels are doing something far more interesting than giving us a story with a hero and a villain. Something much bigger and ultimately far more revolutionary. Something that calls into question the whole framework for how we tell our stories.
Rene Girard was a literary critic who did extensive research into how the scapegoating mechanism has worked throughout human societies. Because groups are inherently unstable, with desire and conflict threatening cohesion, we need a way to keep ourselves together. The scapegoating mechanism provides a powerful means to do this. We may not be able to agree on everything, but if we can, at key times, agree that this particular person, or this particular group of people, are what is causing our problems, and if we can direct all of our energy toward casting out, eliminating, defeating, executing this person or group, we will achieve a remarkable unity. It will hold us together, for a while longer. The unity will inevitably start to weaken as the energy from the scapegoating event dissipates, and so eventually another scapegoat is needed.
Girard proposed that human sacrifice began as a way of regularly ritualizing the scapegoating act. Sacrifice obviously pleased the gods because it brought the powerful blessing of group cohesion. It was a miracle every time. By directing the anxiety and anger and scattered energy of the group all in one direction, all laid upon that sacrificial victim, the group managed to both restored their unity and affirm their own goodness. They have cast out of their presence the cause of all their strife. This is the right and righteous thing to do for the security of the group. And it’s self-evidently true that the sacrificial victim was the cause of the strife because it’s such a unifying act to cast them out. The priest who carries out the sacrifice mediates the gift of the gods to the people. The victim is declared guilty and offered up, and the crowd, the congregation, is redeemed and declared innocent, born again as a people.
Even though we don’t do human sacrifice, or animal sacrifice in the same way these days, the scapegoating mechanism persists. The more anxious the society, the more passionate and urgent the scapegoating. It doesn’t matter who the current scapegoats are – the communists, the terrorists, the Jews, the gays, the immigrants. What matters is that there is a space that must be occupied by some small group in order to keep the larger group together. This can also happen on a very small and mostly harmless scale. Parents eventually figure out that one way for their fighting kids to get along is to get them mad at you. It’s a desperation move, but sometimes making yourself the scapegoat temporarily can create a miraculous harmony for everyone else. It can shift the dynamics in a snap. So I’ve heard.
Scapegoating is a gift from the gods.
Unless the story starts to get told from the perspective of the sacrificial victim, the designated villian. From the perspective of the crowd, the ritual and mechanism is the truest and best thing they’ve been given. It’s what holds them together. It’s what renews and redeems creation. It’s what brings safety and security, and purity. But when the story starts to get told from the perspective of the scapegoat, it starts to crack. It starts to be revealed as a lie. It starts to be revealed for what it is. A lynching. A murder. A form of unity based entirely on the power of violence and death.
Girard was a secular philosopher and literary critic and came to believe that the difference between good literature and bad literature was that bad literature covered over the scapegoating mechanism, and good literature revealed it. In the latter part of his career he focused much of his attention on the literature of the Bible and came to see it as a document filled with standard examples of cultural and religious ritual around the scapegoating mechanism. Except that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are ultimately concerned with revealing and exposing and doing away with scapegoating. It’s the story of empire told from the perspective of the Hebrew slaves who get blamed by Pharaoh as the cause of all his ills. It’s the story of a nation told from the perspective of the prophets, who defend the most vulnerable in the public square. It’s the story of conquest from the perspective of the exiles and the occupied, who refuse to assimilate into the dominant society. As is echoes in so many of the Psalms and the Isaiah reading today, the God of the Bible takes up the defense of the one surrounded by the accusing crowd.
And it’s the story of a Messiah who refuses to play the role of Messiah. It’s customary to comment this time of year how strange it is that the crowds who one day are cheering and Hosanna-ing Jesus into Jerusalem, turn around so quickly and shout “crucify him, crucify him.” But this is exactly how the whole thing works. This is standard procedure for human culture. The Messiah, the king, the president, the quarterback is either the savior or the villain. The dynamics can shift in a snap. We either demand that they fix everything, or demand that they be crucified so we can move on to the next potential Messiah. Either way, we are innocent of this man’s blood.
One of the reasons I loved the story from Mark’s sermon last week was that it captured the exact moment when the hero was about to become the villain. The guy who fixed everything was about to lose favor with the crowd, and he was pondering at the edge of the cliff whether he should just save them the trouble and do to himself what the crowd was about to do to him anyway.
How strange and terrible are the events of Holy Week. That Jesus would knowingly walk into that space occupied by the scapegoat. That space that has taken a thousand forms and faces throughout human history. Jesus will occupy that space not because scapegoating saves us, and certainly not because God demands a human sacrifice in order to forgive us. But because scapegoating kills us. We are the ones who demand a human sacrifice. It’s just what we do. We demand someone else pay for our sins, so that we can remain convinced of our own innocence and righteousness, assured once again that god is on our side.
Crucify him, Crucify him, shout the crowds. It’s such a powerful force that even Pilate, the Roman governor, is like putty in its hands. It’s what the crowd demands. It’s what will pacify anxiety. It’s what will keep the peace and restore order. It’s what will confirm what we whisper to ourselves. That this man deserves every bit of it, and we are innocent.
Jesus occupies the space of the scapegoat, and thus exposes it. Exposes it as violence – and not just violence against another human being. But violence against God. Jesus, the god-man, occupied the vulnerable space of the scapegoat, and so everyone who has been in that same place becomes the image of Christ among us. This is why James Cone would declare with authority that Christ is black. Jesus assumes the place of the scapegoat. Exposes the lie, breaks the spell that entranced us, and blinded us.
The writer of Colossians says that Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities by making a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them on the cross” (Col 2:15). The scapegoating mechanism has been disarmed and need not hold any power over us any more. God redeems freely and abundantly, and Jesus, by refusing to be the Messiah, becomes the Messiah, who saves us from our perpetual need for victims. Jesus overcomes sin by becoming the sinful one, the scapegoat, and offers a new way of being human. A way that has no need of victims. A community made up of victims, and perpetrators, who recognize their own complicity, who live into the gift of grace, who give themselves over to being a community of love and repentance and reparation.
Christianity has often fallen right back into the old pattern. God becomes the ultimate demander of sacrifice with Jesus on the cross, the Jews get blamed for it, and Judas embodies the villain. But Christianity at its best has offered to the world a peaceful and redemptive form of community. We are all complicit, which strangely frees us up to become something else. The world is wide enough for us all and there need be no more scapegoats. It is our gospel, good news, message.
As Aaron Burr sings in one of his many fabulous numbers: “Love doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints.” (“Wait for it“)
During this Holy Week may you know the gift of Christ who gave of himself so that we can be free from the powers of death and participate in the parade of life.
Every morning I have a familiar routine. One of the very first things I do after getting out of bed is walk to the countertop in the bathroom. I find this case, unscrew the lids, and put a round piece of plastic in each eye. Before I do this, the world is really blurry. I am badly nearsighted. I started wearing glasses in the 3rd grade and went to contacts sometime in middle school. If the numbers mean anything to you, my contact lens prescription is in the -7’s. This amounts to me being significantly handicapped when I don’t have my contacts in. I trip over stuff on the floor. I wouldn’t even think of driving.
If I didn’t have my contacts in right now, this would be a very different experience, mostly for me, but also for you. I’d have to hold my notes close to my face to read them…or get better at memorizing sermons. Looking across the congregation would be more for effect than actually seeing anyone. You all would be fuzzy blobs. I would be able to guess that Al and Kathy Bauman would be sitting right about there, and Julie and Phil Hart would be about here, but it would be a guess.
I’m so used to wearing corrective lenses that I don’t think of myself as having a disability. It’s strange to even say. But if it were not for these highly engineered pieces of plastic, or the glasses alternative, my experience of the world would be entirely different. My life would be different. My disability is easily hidden, to the point of making it functionally go away.
Those of us with bad eyes undergo a mini transformation each morning – so routine, we easily forget how vital it is to our functioning. We can’t see, very well, and then we can. Every morning. It’s a small dosage of what the blind man in John 9 got all at once. He’d spent his entire life unable to see, restricted, but one day Jesus walked his way and changed his world.
Rather than saline solution and contact lenses, Jesus mixes up a concoction of saliva and mud – spit + dirt – and smears it all over the man’s eyes. In traditional cultures, saliva and clay were both believed to have healing properties. Science has backed this up, although I’m guessing this mix is less than 100% effective in curing blindness. But this man who has never been able to see has an encounter with Jesus the wonder worker. He goes back to the pool of Siloam where Jesus tells him to wash. And, as John reports, “he came back able to see.”
His sight instantly changes his status in the community. Not surprisingly, he had been a beggar, unable to provide for himself. John writes: “The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some people were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’”
His place as a blind beggar had become so established, people had organized their mental neighborhood map so much around him being defined by his blindness and begging, that some folks are unable to recognize him even as the same person when he is no longer defined by those things. They literally don’t see him as someone who might have something to contribute to the community. As someone who, later in the story, becomes a full member in the discipleship community that Jesus is calling into being.
And this is where the story takes on another layer of depth.
This is our third week in a row with a story from John’s gospel and you may be recognizing a pattern. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus has lots of relatively brief encounters with many different people. John, on the other hand, will take an entire chapter, or most of a chapter, to tell of one encounter. Each of these stories, and others within John, start with a very physical, even biological kind of problem or situation. Being reborn by going back into your mother’s womb as an adult? Nicodemus the inquiring Pharisee – Chapter 3. Seeking a thirst-quenching drink of water from a well. The Samaritan woman – Chapter 4. A blind man’s eyes recreated through something as earthy as earth itself. Chapter 9. These scenarios all have multiples layers.
Most of this story with the man-born-blind-who-isn’t-blind-anymore turns out to be about the perceptions of those around this man. Can they see him for more than his disability? Can they welcome him as a full member in the beloved community? And, even more specifically, are they able to drop this persistent notion of sin — assigning moral failure to someone’s health deficiency?
In February we had a series on the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew, and one of the passages we didn’t cover says this: These are the words of Jesus: “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.”
It’s a little strange for us to think of the eye as a lamp. We think of the eye as being a receptacle of light. Light bounces off the surface of surrounding objects, makes its way into our eye, which translates the image into electrical pulses it sends to the brain, which translates those pulses into an image which we “see.” Light travels towards us, and our eyes, to varying degrees of clearness, with various forms of corrective assistance, catch the light.
So, that’s amazing. And that’s how we see.
Jesus’ audience would have believed other things about the eye. The eye was not only a light receiver, it was a light projector. Plato, for example, taught this. He wrote:
“The pure fire which is within us…they made to flow through the eyes in a stream smooth and dense, compressing the whole eye, and especially the centre part, so that it kept out everything of a coarser nature, and allowed to pass only this pure element. When the light of day surrounds the stream of vision, then like falls upon like, and they coalesce, and one body is formed by natural affinity in the line of vision, wherever the light that falls from within meets with an external object. And the whole stream of vision, being similarly affected in virtue of similarity, diffuses the motions of what it touches or what touches it over the whole body, until they reach the soul, causing that perception which we call sight.” (From “The Project Gutenberg Etext of Timaeus,” Citation HERE)
That’s Plato on sight. I had to read that seven times before I got half of it, so if you got any, well done. The point is that the eyes cause us to see by emitting the light that is within us.
The eyes were, as Jesus says, a lamp. You have light, or darkness within you, and everywhere you look, you project that light. Your eyes are light emitters. Light moves from within us, out, and then mixes and coalesces with other light, and comes back into the soul, where the seeing really happens.
When you look at a thing, or a person, you see them in the light that you cast on them, and they are affected by the light, or darkness, you cast on them. The eye is the lamp of the body and we are constantly shining that light, and that’s how we see what we see. Or don’t see what we don’t see.
Long before psychologists taught us about projection, the ancients had it figured out. Kind of.
There’s a quote that fits this well, and nobody really knows who said it, but it’s a good one. It says, “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.” “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.”
I have a very recent example of this playing out. Ila will be entering kindergarten in the fall and we’ve been visiting the neighborhood and lottery schools within Columbus City Schools to get a sense of our options. We’ve also been comparing notes with friends doing the same thing. It turns out we have pretty different impressions of the schools, Abbie and myself included. Abbie was recently talking with a couple other women and they cracked the code. It seems each of us likes the school we’d most want to go to ourselves – or that fulfills some need we feel our own education was lacking. We saw the school as we are. It doesn’t exactly solve the dilemma that is school choice, but it sure helps to recognize what’s going on and why we see the same thing differently.
“We see the world not as it is, but as we are.” Sometimes the way we see exposes something deeper within us.
So it goes in John chapter 9. From the very beginning: “As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” What is initially described as an objective reality – a man blind from birth, very quickly transforms into the subjective reality of the disciples. To whom should we assign moral responsibility for the characteristic that has come to define this man’s being – his blindness? Who sinned, this man or his parents?
The question itself narrows the entire field of perception down to choice A – this man sinned, or choice B, his parents sinned. How would you like to have that perception projected on you your whole life? The narrow framework persists all the way through the story, with the Pharisees soon picking up that role. Their ways of seeing also projects more darkness than light onto the situation. After being unable to get the answers they want from the man-who-can-now-see they say in exasperation, “You were born entirely in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out. They excommunicate him because there is no space within their present way of seeing for him to fit.
And Jesus will have none of it. He reflects that lack of light right back on the Pharisees and says if they must assign sin to this situation, then it looks like sin is coming right out of them. He welcomes the man not because he can or can’t see, but because he acknowledges that God is at work here. Jesus chooses “none of the above” and tells the disciples that neither this man nor his parents sinned. The point of this man’s life, just like the point of any person’s life, is, to quote Jesus “so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
Or, to quote Sarah Werner’s lovely devotional from Monday: “Of course we are all incapacitated in one way or another. Blind to many things while seeing clearly others. But blindness as a physical reality is only another way of being in the world, not chosen, but also not punishment. Nor is ongoing disability a failure of faith, or an object lesson, or an inspiration. There are many ways of being and moving through the world. We are each here so that God’s works may be revealed in each of us.”
The gospel invites us into a certain way of seeing, and this really matters. Having our vision corrected is an inward journey that directly impacts the kind of outward journey we take. Today people from around the nation are gathering in Columbus to march with workers from Immokalee Florida who pick tomatoes for fast food restaurants. How we see these folks has direct impact on our response to them. If we see them with suspicion and fear, it will produce one kind of response. If we see them as worthy of dignity, safe working conditions, and a living wage, it will create a different kind of reality.
The gospel invites us into a certain way of seeing. The light of Christ comes at us in front of our eyes, but also behind our eyes. It projects itself out of us. It casts light. It is a lamp. It sees people as beloved children of God before assigning them to a particular category of what they can and can’t do. This way of seeing is itself an act of healing. It believes that each person is another channel through which God’s works might be revealed.
This is a story about a conversation. It’s heavy on dialogue, short on action.
There’s really not much happening here until the very end. Jesus and a Samaritan woman meet each other at a well, start talking, and keep talking. It’s a long conversation – the longest Jesus has with an individual in all the gospels. It opens with Jesus asking her for a drink of water, but we’re never even told if he ever got it. The conversation takes over, and turns into something much more than giving and receiving a drink of water from a well.
What makes the conversation remarkable, aside from its length, is that it even happened in the first place. Neither Jesus nor the Samaritan woman had much business being at that well at that time.
Jesus had been in the Judean countryside, the area around the holy city of Jerusalem. He’s on his way back to Galilee, his home region. Up north. John says, “Jesus left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria.”
If you look on a map, it’s true that as you head north out of Judea, you’ll soon enter the region of Samaria. Keep on going north through Samaria and eventually you’ll get to Galilee. It’s a direct shot. If you’re walking on High Street in the Short North and you want to get to the church, you’re going to have to go by campus.
When John says that Jesus “had to go through Samaria” it wasn’t exactly a geographic necessity. There was, in fact, a well-traveled route established for the very purpose of avoiding Samaria. Jews and Samaritans had a difficult and even bloody history together, and so Jewish pilgrims traveling between Galilee and Judea would frequently take a longer route around, on the East side of the Jordan River.
“Lucky” for us, and that’s “Lucky” with quotes around it, our highway system enables us to bypass entire neighborhoods without so much as having to think about who and what it is we’re bypassing. Although there are certain Saturdays in the fall when you definitely do not want to be driving High Street through campus. You might still be stuck there when church starts the next morning.
But John says that Jesus, on his way home to Galilee, “had to go” through Samaria, as if Jesus had some kind of resolve, had made some kind of conscious decision that he was going to travel that route on which he would very likely encounter, Surprise, Samaritans.
Once he’s in Samaria he comes to a well. He is “tired out by his journey,” and he takes a seat.
The well would have been a regular stop for any local Samaritan woman. God had not yet created indoor plumbing, and everyone needs water. This was a common thing. An everyday kind of task. A woman’s task. To head out in the cool of the day, morning or evening, along with the other women of the village, and fetch the water for the household: cooking, cleaning, washing, drinking. Fred Suter reminds us that this is still a reality in parts of the developing world as he travels to the Congo and comes back with stories about water, and how one good, well placed well can change the life of a whole village, especially the women, whose day is no longer consumed with long travels to and from the nearest well.
Everybody needs water. In his hierarchy of needs, Maslow listed it at the very foundation of what people need to thrive – right along with food, shelter, breath. If you’re going to reach for the top and become self-actualized, you need to be well-hydrated.
This unnamed Samaritan woman, who had not heard of Maslow, came to the well not in the cool of the day, and not with other women. Mark pointed out last week that the details of John’s gospel are never just throw away lines. Nicodemus came to Jesus “at night,” under the cover of darkness, to have an inquiring conversation with Jesus. This woman came to the well by herself “at noon,” in the blazing heat of the day. It was an unusual time to do the heavy lifting of fetching and carrying water. If Jesus was being intentional about traveling through Samaria to encounter Samaritans, it’s possible this woman was being just as intentional about not encountering anyone.
And how about never being told this woman’s name? Nicodemus got named. Mary Magdalene, who will discover the empty tomb of Jesus and encounter the risen Christ, gets a name. But not this woman. She’s a Samaritan woman – another anonymous character in the gospel stories alongside the rich young ruler, the woman with the hemorrhage, the poor widow who gives her last pennies to the temple treasury, the man born blind who will be the topic of next week’s Scripture, and many others.
Not knowing her name can make the story feel a little less personal. Perhaps reducing her individuality and personhood. But by calling her a Samaritan woman, there’s a way in which her significance is increased, representing far more than just herself. The entire story and situation of the Samaritan people gets loaded into this one woman, and not naming her may allow the reader to consider just how freighted an identity is that of a Samaritan and how remarkable it is that she and this Jewish rabbi are having a life-giving conversation.
I’m thinking about the difference between saying: “Today I met someone named Fatima and we had a long conversation.” and saying, “Today I met a Muslim woman and we had a long conversation.” Or the difference between “Today I met Patricia and she talked about her fears for her children.” Or, “Today I met a Mexican woman and she talked about her fears for her children.” Naming the nationality or religion of the person and not their name can both depersonalize, and highlight the significance of such an encounter. We are not just decontextualized individuals. We carry in our bodies stories, identities, entire biographies of peoples. It’s one of the easiest things for white middle class folks to forget that I am not a generic human being but am freighted with history just like everyone.
Jesus, the Jewish male, on his way back home to Galilee, had to go through Samaria. And at a well, in the heat of the day, he encounters a Samaritan woman.
What made Jews and Samaritans such bitter rivals wasn’t how different they were, but how similar they were, while disagreeing on a few fundamental matters. The Samaritans claimed that they were the true keepers of the Torah, with direct lineage back to the early priests of Israel. Jews believed the Samaritans to be half-breeds and unfaithful to the God of Israel, a result of mixed ethnicities and religious practices that came about after the Assyrian empire conquered the 10 northern tribes of Israel way back in the 8th century before Christ. One of the major Jewish/Samaritan divides is highlighted in this conversation when the woman brings up the Samaritan claim of Mt. Gerizim as the designated place of worship, compared to Jewish claims of Mt Zion in Jerusalem. This was not a small matter.
It may be somewhat analogous to the current relationship between fundamentalist and progressive Christians. We claim the same scriptures and the same Christian tradition, but offer our sacrifices on very different mountains.
Jesus had to go through Samaria on his way home, and, try as she might to avoid any kind of encounter, this Samaritan woman finds herself in a conversation with the enemy.
Strange how something as simple as talking with someone you’re supposed to hate can be a revolutionary act.
In living with this Scripture this week I couldn’t help but think of the numerous conversations I’ve been a part of in which we’ve talked about…conversations. How hard it is to talk with people who think so differently. How valuable it is to form relationships with people from different backgrounds. It feels like really basic stuff, but it’s incredibly easy not to do.
We know society is polarized and polarizing. We know social media is a lousy way to have an argument. We know we want to be motivated by love, and not fear, or disgust. We know how almost impossible it is to change those people’s mind to think the right way : )
With this in mind, the phrase from the dialogue that most drew me in was when Jesus tells the woman he can offer her living water. “Living water” was a common phrase the simply meant running water, moving water, like a river, as opposed to stagnant water like a pool. But Jesus goes on to say that the kind of living water he offers is the kind that will become in you a spring of water gushing up to life everlasting.” It’s water which gives life, which leads to more life, which leads to more life, in a never ending ripple effect.
It makes me wonder if another aspect of the Inward/Outward journey is the practice of having living conversations. Conversations that lead to life, which lead to more life, as opposed to soul-sucking conversations, or no conversations at all. What if the encounter in the center of the labyrinth that we’ve been talking about is a living conversation, and the journey in is the work we do to enable ourselves to have living conversations, and the journey out is how we carry that conversation and allow it to transform us, as if we had encountered Christ.
The easy part is that this can count for pretty much any conversation we have. The hard part is, well, you know….It’s hard.
I think I’ve had a few of those kinds of living conversations recently, and I’ll share one.
It was a few weeks back at the mosque on the West Side. They hosted an open house that our own Robin Walton helped organize. After exploring the building a bit, Lily and I went up to the refreshment line. The energetic young Somali woman serving food spotted my wedding ring tattoo and asked me about it. I told her I had already lost two rings, am in it for the long haul, and figured this was a solution. She replied how cool she thought it was when people decorated their bodies and that if she ever got tattoos she would have the word Hello in 200 languages all over her arms. She asked me where I was from and when I said I grew up in rural Ohio she said how much she likes country folks. “They know how to fix things,” she said. I agreed. She has some friends in a rural area west of Columbus she likes to hang out with. Then she started telling me her favorite country music singers and I had to confess I hadn’t heard any of the songs. After she educated me about the American country music scene I figured I better not hold up the line any more. She served us delicious Somali food, and we moved down the line.
It was a living conversation with a Somali woman whose name I can’t remember. I’m guessing when most folks think of Somalians they don’t picture the face of a tattoo-admiring, country music loving grad student. But now you can.
These days, having a respectful conversation with someone you’re supposed to view only with suspicion or fear can shake things up, even if just a little.
So maybe you identify most with Jesus, who had to go through Samaria, who made a commitment to encountering people he could have easily avoided. Who both asked for a drink out of his own need, and offered living water whose effects would last well after the conversation was over.
Or maybe you identify most with the Samaritan woman, initially avoiding, then willingly entering, then embracing the gift of a living conversation. At the end she puts down her water jar and goes back to her people and invites them to come and see. She invites them into this life, this experience, this freedom, that this stranger has given her. She becomes the jar that holds the water, and living water flows out of her to her people.
May the Source of all Life gift us with living water.
If you’ve read the Lent devotionals, looked at the bulletin cover, or found the pattern in the hanging dots behind me, you’ve likely noticed a visual theme. We’re using the labyrinth throughout Lent as a symbol of the Inward / Outward journey.
It’s an ancient design. Not necessarily this particular one, but the labyrinth. One site in northern India has a labyrinth pattern estimated to be 4500 years old. A cluster of islands in northwest Russia have over 30 stone labyrinths that may be as old as 3000 years.
Greek mythology includes the story the part human/ part beast minotaur who wreaks havoc on the population until the great architect Daedalus designs and builds a labyrinth whose sole purpose is to contain the minotaur at its center. The hero Theseus eventually enters the winding labyrinth and slays the minotaur. Some labyrinths still portray a minotaur at the center.
In later medieval times stone labyrinths show up in regions like Scandinavia, frequently around the coast. Fishing communities likely built these with the superstitious hopes of trapping harsh winds and trolls that may endanger a successful fishing outing.
Around the same time, the labyrinth was being adopted more fully as a Christian symbol of pilgrimage. Labyrinths were embedded into the pavement of grand cathedrals. Worshipers were invited to pray their way along the path, into the center, a place of holy encounter, and pray their way back out. Some writings suggest that walking the labyrinth was an alternative option for those unable to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as Christian crusaders regained and then lost control of the Holy City to the Muslim armies. There’s a real bright spot in religious history.
In the last few decades the labyrinth has made a resurgence in the Christian imagination. Labyrinths are popping up in all kinds of places. Maybe you’ve seen one and wondered what it was. They’re used frequently at retreats as a more active prayer practice. During my years at seminary AMBS decided to mow a labyrinth into a large area of native prairie grasses growing on the campus. The labyrinth is a trending piece of spiritual technology, and we’re riding the wave.
One of the primary differences between a labyrinth and a maze is that the labyrinth has only one path, with no dead ends or false trails. This is different than, say, the hedge maze at the Triwizard tournament that Harry Potter had to find his way through, the four contestants frantically darting through corridors, trying to avoid wrong turns and blast ended skrewts, and find the Cup.
If you put your finger at the bottom opening of the labyrinth on the bulletin cover, or if you do the same with your eye with the banner, and start to trace the line, you’ll notice there is only one way to go. In a labyrinth the task is not to avoid getting lost, but simply to keep going. If you keep going, you will make it into the center. And after arriving, you will find your way back out, if you only keep going.
So why go on a pilgrimage like this? Why go through this circuitous route when it would be much easier to walk a straight line into the center? And, since when did anyone decide that the journey into the labyrinth was a good thing? Aren’t there harsh winds and a minotaur waiting for you in the center?
The scriptures for the first Sunday of Lent speak about why such a journey may be necessary.
The reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is one of the opening scenes of the Bible. It’s an origins story about who we are and where we come from. In Genesis 2, the human is formed from the dust of the ground. Shaped by the Lord God, Yahweh Elohim, breathed into being through the Divine breath of life. The humans begin life surrounded by everything they need to flourish. They live in a lush garden. There are all kinds of trees planted by the very hand of Yahweh Elohim, producing different kinds of edible fruit. Humanity starts out in a perennial forest garden. The only hitch is that one tree from which the humans are commanded not to eat. The tree of knowledge of good and evil. Knowledge of good and evil could have a moral meaning, or it could also be an expression of comprehensiveness. Like the “heavens and the earth” includes those two things and everything in between. “Good and evil” could also mean those two things, and everything in between. The tree of knowledge of the full scope of that which is knowable, all the way from the good, to the evil.
Now if Yahweh Elohim would have had any kind of parenting experience whatsoever, God would have known that as soon as you declare something off limits, you inadvertently and immediately awaken the very desire you are seeking to quelch. I guess it might add a little extra incentive for obedience if you say, “On the day you do it, you will surely die.” In Genesis, God is learning right along with humanity how to make this whole creation thing work. And so the stage is set.
We’re so familiar with the general outline of the story of the Garden of Eden that it’s easy to miss how surprising an origins story it is – one in which humanity is surrounded by abundance. It seems much more intuitive to tell a story of scarcity. These up and coming humans struggling against all odds in a hostile environment. Scrounging for food, fending off wild beasts, never more than an annual cycle away from the threat of starvation or annihilation. Within our own myths of economic competition and perpetual progress, it’s tempting to look back into the mists of pre-history and imagine that kind of continuous struggle for survival in which life, in the words of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Leviathan, 1651).
But Genesis proposes another scenario, another way to think about our origins, and thus our present predicament. It’s a story in which the central question is not How will we have enough resources? but rather How will we use the abundance of our resources in a way that contributes to the flourishing of life rather than the destruction of life? That’s an important enough point that I’m going to say it again. In the biblical imagination, the defining question of human origins is not How will we get enough food and clothes and resources to survive? Food is abundant. Clothes are optional. The defining question is What will or won’t we do with the many resources we do have?
One of those resources, of course, being the acquisition of god-like knowledge.
The Garden of Eden story famously hinges on the role of the serpent. In later tradition the serpent came to be conflated with the devil, but here it is simply described as more crafty than any other wild animal that Yahweh Elohim had made. And that word “crafty” doesn’t have to be negative. That word is elsewhere translated “sensible.” In Proverbs it is most frequently translated as “prudent.” Even Jesus said to be shrewd as serpents, but innocent as doves. Now the serpent was more “prudent,” “sensible” “shrewd”… “crafty.” The Jewish Publication Society translates it as “subtle.” The subtle serpent.
And the subtle/sensible/shrewd serpent says, No, you won’t die, you’ll become like God, knowing good and evil, the full range of knowledge. And the serpent is right. When they eat the fruit, they don’t die, at least not that day, as Yahweh Elohim had said. And they do obtain knowledge.
And they get booted out of the perennial forest garden – and they have to start farming, struggling with the earth. It’s the agricultural revolution that brought us refrigerators and DDT (See last week’s sermon). Such far ranging knowledge.
And that’s the broad framework in which the drama of human history unfolds. What will we do with our tremendous knowledge and god-like power?
And it starts to become more evident why a pilgrimage into the center of the labyrinth becomes essential. Just because we have the basics of what we need to live, doesn’t mean we know how to truly live. How to live in such a way that glorifies God and resists temptations detrimental to the flourishing of life.
Might this kind of pilgrimage be precisely what Jesus is doing at the onset of his public ministry?
Jesus has just been baptized, he has just been declared the Beloved Son of God, and the first thing to follow, Matthew says, is this: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Congratulations on your baptism. In case you didn’t read the fine print, we’d like to inform you you’ll be spending the next 40 days in physical and spiritual anguish.
In so many ways, Jesus has all he needs. He’s got Resources, with a capital R. But Matthew, Mark, and Luke all agree that before he exercises any of this, he has to go into the wilderness, the place of physical scarcity – led there by the Spirit. And in the wilderness, the question of the tempter, the devil, is not, do you have the power? Do you have the ability? But since you have the knowledge, ability, how are you going to use it? What kind of power are you going to exercise? Since you are the Son of God…
Jesus walks into the labyrinth, keeps moving up, down, around that singular path, and arrives in the center, in the wilderness, distant from the outside world but face to face with the most common temptations humanity faces. In the center there is indeed a minotaur, of sorts, waiting for him. Jesus faces these temptations in the wilderness so that when he faces them in the land of abundance, he will have already made his decision.
The temptations seem eccentric on the surface, but there is an interpretive tradition that links them very much with the human experience. If you like alliteration, you can think of them as the temptations of possessions, pride, and power.
The devil first tempts Jesus, who hasn’t eaten for weeks, to turn the desert stones into bread. In response Jesus says something to the effect of “Even if every single stone in this desert were a steaming hot loaf of bread, it wouldn’t be enough. We don’t live just on bread, we are sustained by every word and that Breath of life that comes from the mouth of God.” Even though one might have possessions, they need not define one’s life and worth.
And when the devil suggests that Jesus might leap from the pinnacle of the temple because he’s so special that there’s no way God would let him get hurt, Jesus rejects that kind of prideful thinking. Years later, back in a garden setting, he will pray that if it be possible for his life to be spared, that God would do so. But not my will, but yours be done. And there are no angels who intervene to stop the whole procession that leads to his state execution on the cross.
And when the devil shows him the kingdoms of the world which he will gladly hand over if Jesus will only genuflect before the altar of power dominance, Jesus again rejects this offer. He sends the devil away, angels come and attend to him, and he soon makes his way out of the wilderness, out of the labyrinth, back into the land of abundance. Now finally ready to do his work.
The early church father Irenaeus wrote that the “The glory of God is humanity full alive.”
Lent is a time when we confess that we don’t know how to be fully alive. We think we have some ideas, but we know enough to know we’re likely screwing it up. We live in the land of abundance, we have tremendous knowledge, but it doesn’t fill out the full picture of how to live lives that bring glory to the Creator and add to the flourishing of life.
So we head into the labyrinth. We take the inward journey, assured that this is not a trick. There are no dead ends or false paths. There is simply the road that leads to the center where we will encounter what and who we need to encounter. What we need to encounter in order to come back out with a renewed sense of who we are, and the small part we play in the abundance of creation. It’s a journey we take multiple times throughout life.
Let me end by saying that this journey can take many forms, but if you want a way to get together to pray with others, we will be meeting every Wednesday of Lent here in the sanctuary. We’ll be teaching and practicing Centering prayer, a simple form of silent prayer. And we’ll be praying from the Anabaptist Prayer Book which includes open spaces for voicing our concerns and intersessions. We’re having these at 5:30pm with the hopes this can assist some folks in joining in route to their way home from work, and still have most of the evening to be home.
May you know that the Breath of Life, the Christ of Love, accompanies and sustains you on your journey, and may you be led by the Spirit to go where you need to go.